Friday 28 July 2017

The Edge of the World

I was not interested in those cliffs until the trawler drove straight into them. I was above Patey's Buachaille, contemplating the channel that, in the absence of ladders, must be swum; I was considering killer whales in that channel when the trawler disappeared halfway between me and Cape Wrath. Until that moment my interest stopped at Sandwood Bay, that would become Scamadale in Miss Pink at the Edge of the World. It was the trawler that aroused my interest in the country called the Parph. The boat had not foundered but gone in to Kescaig Bay; one fixed point at the edge of a hundred square miles of wilderness that, except for the lighthouse road across its northern fringe, is untracked.

The terrain is moorland swelling into low hills, but fronting the Atlantic to west and north, there are over twelve miles of cliffs, and this is the Parph: the last land seen by the wild geese before they touch down in the Arctic, the ultimate sanctuary for the last wolf in Britain. Seal-women and mermaids have been seen in its coves, and on dark nights a drowned Dutch sailor can be heard scrunching the strand of Sandwood Bay. I went there once, in late spring, with an anti-cyclone stationary over the north-west corner of Scotland so that I could travel light, without tent or stove. I went in from the road between Durness and Rhiconich, heading in a northerly direction for Creag Riabhach, which, at 1592ft, is the highest point of the Parph. My route was line-of-sight and followed burns, upstream and down, over miniature watersheds.

And out there, in the middle of wastes of heather, I came on a squat round cairn of sandstone flags — just one, very old and with not the slightest indication of how or why it came to be there. If it was a grave, who died here, from what cause, miles from any road? Creag Riabhach was wild and dark, facing north-east, with late primroses glowing in its shadow. Below was a clear blue lochan fringed by pale sand marked with the tracks of fox and heron. Sitting between crag and water, eating lunch, I looked at the contents of my pack and reflected that for four days those few possessions represented security.

They looked madly incongruous and served only to emphasize the solitude. Suddenly this shining world, soft, balmy and beautiful, became animate, implacable, hostile. I was aware, first, of my own arrogance in coming here, then of my vulnerability. I thought of turning back, but I looked at the shimmering horizon and knew I should continue to the coast and find shelter for the night.

Providing the weather is holding the traveller may concentrate on his immediate surroundings. All I had to be wary of was a sprained ankle, and one man at least has crawled home with a fractured pelvis. As I approached the coast the land became more dramatic and the weather changed — not much but sufficient to make a difference. Untracked heather and bog is tiring, and the psychological strain is a heavy factor. I was happy on sandstone pavements among sculpted rocks, delighted with a prospect of Sandwood Bay, but the breeze was freshening, already driving white horses across the lochs. By the time I reached the cliffs water was slopping out of pools before a dry gale and I was uneasy. 

I had one glimpse of jumbled cliffs before I turned my back on wind and brilliant sun to stagger the last mile to Kescaig Bay. There was no thought of stopping because there could be no shelter until I could get down to the shore. Appalled by this sudden violence I applied myself grimly to the task of trying to keep my balance, of putting one foot in front of the other until I reached a lip and looked down on a tiny stone shelter roofed with turf which I hadn't known was there. I I turned in at 7pm, snug in my bag on a bed of bracken. The gale raged outside but my mind retreated like an animal in its den: warm, dry, safe. I slept.

I woke to stillness. I could tell by the light between the chinks in the stones that the sun was on the bothy. A wren was singing. A gull called . The bay was calm and only the occasional breaker bloomed against the southern s headland. Eider duck were talking softly in the kelp, fulmar regarded me with dark eyes from their nests among the thrift. I bathed l and ate at my leisure, and strolled back for a mile to see what I'd missed last night. There were orchids everywhere (I'd not seen one),  the fulmars floated beside me, a skua came in for a closer look but dismissed me. I was a harmless. The lighthouse at Cape Wrath was visible as soon as I climbed out of Kescaig Bay: a black dome a little over three miles away but twice that distance as I was forced to trace the coastline, rounding its innumerable inlets.

Depressions were full of flowers, the clifftop was scattered with cushions of moss campion and thrift in deserts of red stones. A ringed plover's nest was framed by crystals of roze quartz. Seals tossed in the foam below the cliffs, skuas patrolled, handing me on to the next pair at the boundary of their territory. As I approached the corner of the land, the sea boiled under stacks at the end of the reef: tall pinnacles, a cubist tower, carmine rock cleft by pink dykes. The sea was green and purple, the foam dazzling. The lighthouse was built above a reef that ended in an arched pinnacle covered with birds. The keepers gave me coffee ("We put the kettle on when saw you coming"), and told me about the man camping at Kearvaig, where I proposed to spend the night.

It had happened last year: the police and coastguards had found his tent empty, the food going mouldy, and nothing had been seen or heard of him since: a Liverpool man with spectacles. The keepers and I regarded each other silently. My mind raced. At the Bay of Kearvaig the corner had been turned; Cape Wrath was now behind me, the arch below the lighthouse forming the bay's western headland, a huge horned stack to the east. Two men were camping on the strand and we sat round a fire of driftwood and talked until midnight, when I went away to sleep among the plovers in the dunes, the sunset colours still lingering in the sky.

From Kearvaig eastward the cliffs of Clo Mor rise sharply. Facing north they are shadowed and speckled with the white of birds and clumps of scurvy grass. They are 900ft high, and vertical where they don't overhang. The sea whispers softly at their feet, the swell crawls landward in slow motion, seals bask on skerries: grey, black and silver, and sometimes, very faintly, their song rises to the watcher on the cliff. I spent the third night in the heather above the Kyle of Durness and the fog rolled in so that any dreams were threaded by sound: the fog horn, seals, the howl of the last wolf. I woke to space, to spiders' webs spangled with moisture against the cloud, to a new awareness as civilisation loomed on the other side of the kyle. 

The wilderness was inanimate but alive. It could not be intrinsically hostile but could well be a reflection of man's hostility, and his love. How many explorers have gone into the desert and found a soul out there beyond the sand and rocks? I had not heard the last wolf but my first. 

Gwen Moffatt: First published in High in December 1985 

Friday 21 July 2017

Seven Summits: A Moelwynion Circuit

Head of Cwmorthin
For a really satisfactory hillwalk some sort of objective is necessary. But whereas (in the present writer's opinion) the covering of a given distance in the shortest possible time has nothing to do with appreciation of mountains, the leisurely visiting of a group of related summits is a worthy and rewarding form of peak-bagging. The Moelwyn group, 10 miles south-east of Snowdon, provides an excellent day' s walking of this sort. The route is a circuit over the seven summits topping 2,000 feet, returning to starting-point, which is the hamlet of Croesor 7 miles from Beddgelert and 4 miles from Penrhyndeudraeth. There is a recently constructed car park at Croesor, the customary starting-point for that increasingly popular little mountain Cnicht, 2265 feet. The beginning of the way up Cnicht is well marked with "walker" posts up to a broad saddle on the south-west ridge, and from here a path- beginning to suffer from erosion now- mounts pleasantly on the narrowing crest to the foot of the final steep bit, a very easy scramble beloved of school parties.

The sharply-pointed summit, of course, is an illusion, being the end of an undulating half-mile ridge whence there are splendid views of Snowdon across the Gwynant valley on the left. This ridge slants gently down to a saddle where the boggy slopes cradle Llyn yr Adar, Lake of the Birds; a seduction for photographers when the waters are still enough to reflect the peak of Snowdon afar off. All this upland area is rich in little lakes, and from Cnicht you'll have looked down on one of the larger ones, Llyn Cwm-y-foel.

A boggy path heads northerly above the eastern shore of Llyn yr Adar. This is part of the route used by the slate-miners of last century to cross from Beddgelert to the Ffestiniog quarries at weekends, winter and summer. You follow it for 1/4 -mile, but then leave it to mount north-east on the little craggy ridge that appears on your right front. Miniature rocky summits jut here and there, and in mist it's not easy to find the highest of these Creigiau'r Cwn and bag your second summit at 2192 feet. The three Lakes of the Dogs (Llynau' r Cwn) are your safest guides, small lonely tarns clustered close together; Point 2192 is the crag immediately south of the most easterly tarn. This is the place where the mountain watershed between Liverpool Bay and Tremadoc Bay makes its right-angle turn from E-W to N-S, running northward to Pen-y-gwryd and then over Crib Goch to Rhyd-ddu and the Eifionydd ridges. You'll
head south, south-east, and east, following for the most part the decrepit wire fence that marks the height of land — a dullish stretch in thick weather but in clear conditions giving magnificent distant views to the sea on the right hand and the moorland ramparts of England on the left.

In a mile or more, having passed two delightful tarns right on the watershed, you come to Moel Druman, at 2152 feet your third summit; it's little more than a massive knob on the ridge and a couple of hundred feet of ascent brings you to its rounded top. South-south-east of it you see Llyn Conglog with its long peninsula of rock and heather, looking like the space where a piece of jigsaw puzzle ought to fit. Leaving this lake well to the right and keeping on down the ridge to a big slope of moorland, you mount steadily eastward to Allt Fawr, the Big High Place. Allt Fawr, 2297 feet, is the presiding mountain of Blaenau Ffestiniog, and from it you look down on Blaenau' s rows of houses and piles of slate waste. From the west- the side by which you have approached it- it's not much of a mountain; but seen from the east it shows itself massive and imposing. This fourth top is the most easterly corner of the route, and from it you turn back to descend moorland slopes to the southern shore of Llyn Conglog. The two mile section that follows needs good route finding, for there is no path and the terrain is rough and complicated.

You have to get down to Bwlch Rhosydd, the lowest point on the traverse, where a path crosses the pass between the long steep-walled valleys of Cwm Croesor and Cwmorthin. Having plodded along the south shore of Conglog and crossed its outlet stream (which plunges down into Llyn Cwmorthin on the left) you could in clear weather follow the rim of Cwmorthin as it winds west-by-south down to little Llyn Clogwyn Brith in its crater like hollow, thence descending to the bwlch below. In doubtful conditions it's best to make the larger Llyn Cwm-Corsiog the objective, steering due west from the narrow western tip of Conglog past a marshy tarn and so down boggy slopes, bearing rather to the south-west, to gain the old dam at the south end of Cwm-Corsiog. A faint track goes down from here to the ruined quarry build-ings on the pass. Rhosydd Quarry ceased work in the 1920's and its remains are now the haunt of industrial archaeologists, but its spoil heaps remain to puzzle the hillwalker with their tilted unbeautiful maze. 

Scrambling off Cnicht's summit Ridge: Image Phillip Stasiw
From the east side of the largest ruin a track winds up through the piles of slate and when you have emerged on the more level ground above you can strike south-east up the flank of Moel yr Hydd. It's an easy slog, grass diver-sified with slabby outcrops, to the cairn on this fifth summit. Moel yr Hydd, 2124 feet, has an impressive 400-foot precipice on the side overlooking Cwmorthin, but I've never heard of anyone climbing on it; maybe its dark aspect and dank vegetation repel climbers, but it is certainly very steep. Its southern crags, where Tony Moulam and members of the Climbers Club made several good routes in the 50's are below on your left as you descend west-by-south from the cairn to arrive in a matter of minutes on the saddle separating this little mountain from Moelwyn Mawr, the only one of the seven to top 2500 feet.

Approaching the larger Moelwyn from this direction shows the mountain's least attractive side, unfortunately, but the prospects to right and left widen as you plod along the broad boggy crest and up the steepening flank of shaley turf. Only when the O.S. cairn at 2,527 feet is reached does Moelwyn reveal that, like Cnicht, it is an impostor; but whereas Cnicht pretends to be a sharp peak when it is really a ridge, Moelwyn pretends to be a lumpish dome when it is really a narrow ridge. The ridge, running north-west from the trig. point, drops on the right in little crags and gullies to a long scree. One of the gullies provided myself and my wife with a good snow climb in March some years ago.

The slopes on the left are turfy, but that they are long and steep was proved one day when, sitting down to lunch just below the O.S. cairn, I incautiously placed my rucksack on the turf beside me. It rolled away before I could grab it, and had fallen a good 800 feet when I finally rescued it. But the view from Moelwyn Mawr is its major asset. Standing as it does well clear of the Snowdon massif and with only the lower Moelwyn Bach to southward, it gives a magnificent all-round panorama on a clear day. The sea fills most of the western horizon- northward all the three-thousanders and their satellites are in view; eastward Berwyns, Arenigs and Arans march afar, and in the south Plynlimon peers from beyond the long cliff-line of Cader Idris. It is arguable (and I sometimes argue it) that there is no wider view from any North Wales top.

A fine rocky ridge drops due south to the col between the two Moelwyns, but not due south from the cairn — a point to be noted in mist. You steer south-east at first, down easy turf slopes for about 200 feet to join. the descending ridge. Nowadays the way down its succession of little easy rock-steps is well marked. It rises over the small craggy top of Craig Ysgafn, touching the 2,000-foot contour and so making an eighth two-thousander in the circuit if you were inclined to be fussy. But it's a mere 'incident on the ridge" really — and anyway "Seven Summits" is alliteratively preferable. Steeply down on the left here is Llyn Stwlan, once possessing- an ideal diving-rock for climbers sweating after a warm day on the excellent Moelwyniau climbs just round the corner but now quite spoiled by its dam; it is the upper lake of the Tanygrisiau Pumped Storage scheme, and buses and coaches reach it by the road constructed by the C.E.G.B. The dam and its approach road can easily be reached from the col at the bottom of the Craig Ysgafn ridge, a useful get-off for anyone who finds six summits enough for them on this walk.

From the grassy col, Bwlch Stwlan, the seventh and last summit looms impressively above, due south. The actual top is in fact not in sight, being hidden beyond a black helmet of overhanging cliff which has a singularly forbidding aspect. Moelwyn Bach is nearly 200 feet lower than its big brother but the short climb up it from the col is the steepest bit on the route. Until recently walkers always took a direct line, straight up the left-hand side of the scree from the col almost to the base of the overhanging face, then traversing rightward below the crag to scramble up round its corner. This involved the craft of using loose scree and allowed the more experienced males to render physical assistance to attractive female novices. There is also an airy scramble on the left of the sheer face, short and easy but slimy in wet weather.

Nowadays, however, our parties-under instruction with their passion for well-trodden paths- have trodden one out up the scree to the left of the upper rock-face, plain enough to be obvious from the col. In its upper part this path becomes a trifle obscure just where it mounts a steepening slope of turfy shale with a considerable drop below. I have used both routes in winter, and have turned back from both in conditions of hard frost; scree and shale can freeze to a steel-plate hardness that renders ice-axe and crampons useless and makes it totally impossible to arrest a slide.

In ordinary conditions there's no difficulty at all in plodding up the steep path or in using the direct route. Both bring you to easier ground and a five-minute ramble to the insignificant summit-cairn at 2,334 feet. Looking southward from here, down into the wooded glens of Maentwrog and the Ffestiniog valley and away beyond to the dim shapes of the Arans and Cader Idris, you get an even more delightful prospect than from Moelwyn Mawr. But the northward view from Moelwyn Bach is partly blocked by the massive bulk of its neighbour and it can claim only 270° of panorama.

All the same, for my money this last of the seven summits is the best little mountain of them all, for it is very steep on three of its sides and boldly sculptured. Its buttressing crags are not high enough to make good rock climbs, which is a pity, for the rock is sound. I once made a three-pitch route here, below the summit on the east. Since I and my four companions constituted the membership of a small but select Club, I had conceived the idea (I think an original one) of holding the Annual General Meeting of the Club on the way up the climb; in consequence of which it was named A.G.M. Rib. It's still in the official Moelwyniau guide, but under the title of "Agm Rib," which must puzzle those interested in route nomenclature.

Moelwyn Bach Summit

There is a pleasant way of descending to Croesor from Moelwyn Bach by dropping down to the right from the long western ridge and picking a way across the bogs and streams of Maesgwm, but it postulates for comfort a knowledge of the best places for crossing the streams and a couple of tricky wire fences. At the end of a longish hill day it's probably best to walk easily down due west and by way of a stile and a corner of forestry onto the mountain road. Then there remains one mile of downhill on a metalled surface, with superb views lit by the westering sun, before you are back at Croesor car park.

Distance: 14 miles approx. Time: allow 8 hours Maps: O.S. 1/50,000 Sheets 115 and 124. Sheet 107 of the old 1-inch map covers the whole walk. 

Showell Styles: First published as 'The Seven Summits Walk in Climber and Rambler-December 1980.

Friday 14 July 2017

Never Mind the Puffins.....The lost Clown Film

Freda and Friend 

The following essay by John Redhead is an exclusive extract from a forthcoming Gogarth Anthology, put together by Grant Farquhar.

The climbing was never ‘it’.

The keeper of the fog was an old soul and a man of the sea. He kept the time with the tides and talked weather and birds and told his tale. His kettle always singing on the stove, always ready to tempt the odd-climber or bird watcher inside to tell their own tale. He was also the keeper of a book that recorded climbing activities on the stack. He was interested beyond the surface of things, and I guess, being a sociable but solitary man, aware of more abundant life, he was eager to share the life-force. I gave him the peg that I took out of the Cad on the third ascent. The station became decommissioned and the telegraph poles across the mountain carried silence to a dead end. No more sirens. But still the fog. The keeper, in time, possibly became an inmate of a nursing home, and drifted away an unbound soul with hazy musings of white walls atop the white zawn - heads bobbing over the top like seals in the sea, washed with salty tales and jargon of ascent…E7? The Bells The Bells! Time to sound the siren on losing the grip.

The Telegraph pole totemic - wrapping your ropes around like a homecoming caress, throwing them over the cliff and hopping on down for a way up - so many lives hung from this bit of old wood unknowing of its depth - sadly gone. And the old canon from a bygone era, job done, wedged and at peace between boulders – sadly gone. And, from weathered disrepair, in time, an American lady artist bought the silent, whitewashed outpost. I guess no one had told her that not only puffins found this place fun. She drove her Land Rover purposefully over my ropes one day whilst I was half way down Parliament House Cave on the abseil. The jolt I felt was a lucky one but the ropes had been torn. Jesus lady, fuck off! Obviously climbers do not ‘flip her skirt’ and the fog station, built for a storm, her bought solitude, became a temple to her own affairs.

The clown smiles a clown’s smile.

Meanwhile, Punch wields his cudgel… a triumph of amorality and unworthiness, untroubled, rejoicing in yet another battle with the law…

For sure, the climbing was never it.

The climbing was never a game of numbers, apart from one occasion whilst soloing Pentathol with Captain Cliff Phillips. He fell asleep after rolling a little number on the sloping stance near the top, and I had to wedge his head into a crack to stop him rolling off and plummeting into the sea. Gogarth is like intravenous. It kicks in immediately and you have to deal with it. It is a robust domain without clippy-clips and Main cliff sums it up.

When you spend a lot of time on a particular piece of rock, an affinity builds up. One relates, one responds, pushes, probes and enters a dialogue like that with a friend or lover. North Stack is one such wall and for me the joy of moving around on the rock’s surface were conversations held deep in the body and bones. However, these joyful, playful little chats were in fact life threatening and could have led to termination at anytime. Attention, respect the enemy in your friend, and know there is more to this frisson-scampering on the rock than technique or self-preservation. The fragile placing of fingers and toes, chalked-talked the talk and there you have it…or rather not, because I am not just toes and fingers joining dots. And beyond the fear is another terrain that proves the climbing was never it.

It is this terrain that nourished the Trickster that fed me ‘visitors’ that filled my studio, and with each North Stack route, each breath stopped but held to a tiny nubbin, came a little death and with that came a bus-full more, just walking in, cheeky feely, bumping into my body, charging into my head and soul with images, form and colour. Like the climbs, the canvasses were a commitment to uncertain outcomes. No sketching and no planning meant an engagement with doubt, an entry into something unknown. The work asserted itself and moves were made. Once on the holds, it seems, one resorts to chance and an awesome awakening. Only by doubt can such forms enter the world, and only by entering this field can such vital ingredients be summoned. Like a hunt, it suited me. Summon and seize is always juicy.

I admit, I am not a strong climber, but had the strength in the ability to find what I needed on the way. It was my trick. It was like stepping on and summoning the strength from a third person, shuffling up as if ‘literally’ in a six-foot box with all the tools I required. For me, the passage and release upon survival nourished the creative process to actually open the box-lid, turn around and peer inside, be very alarmed, see the joke and act…back in a, hmmm, ‘safe’ studio.

I have done all the climbs here, many more than once and know, as the climber clings to his knowledge and life, that the prospect of death was not the most vital of forces acting upon me. It is an awesome wall and so much has been said about ‘trad’ climbing and anyone stepping on here with an on-sight in mind will get the joke pretty quick. I cannot say what ‘trad’ climbing means in these days of popular climbing vernacular born from institutional sport, but this stage exists for all to experience in their own way.

That force that I felt acting upon me, a ‘lifting away from myself’… is a divine conduit of poetic significance with a breathing planet, not what I consider to be a destructive regime that takes control, as is mostly the case with a sport.

‘Trad’ stands for traditional… unreconstructed in a way I am at odds. But perhaps it means to die… even if the new-born-brave peer down the grade and quantify a high digital readout with a clean gathering of beta, death is the bottom line, and the tidal rocks are the whispering of roots into the hinterland. It ain't gonna be clean with your name on a snappy when your beta talks swazzle. My routes at North Stack were never ‘trad’ to me, and the idea of a sport never entered the equation. Life was too ludicrous, random, still a dirty business with side-stalls of anarchy and nonsense, when rock was more a guide to thought.

Following ‘purple blobs’ on the climbing wall brick-road will not lead you here, I don’t think, but more likely to lead you into staring at traffic lights, or a possible Olympic challenge for the GB team and ambassadors for the State of Rule. Hey ho, piss poor for the old rebel soul receptive to a stranger music, but cool for those who wish to play with the stock in the paddock, learn moves and earn badges! Sorry to tell you guys but what you have lost is greater than what you gain… and I will tell you from my little bit of scary spanning on the stack, from limb to limb, smearing, stretching, swazzling a ritual passage, that nothing in nature is clean, is watching you and writhing in its slime and waste for a better hold. The joke is not just on the stack… and I guess, to be honest, there have been times when the effort to stay on was almost too much, a dangerous slide into a blurred resignation, almost happy to let go of that we call land and that we call body…

So having experienced North Stack as an arena for thought and revelation, I think it’s also cool to die a little… tool up, step on, peer inside, it’s easy, and thanking Kali and her necklace of skulls, there is no sport here!  Amen, and enjoy the show!

North Stack Wall – what an epic seaside stage!

As an outsider artist back in the 80’s I penned a few key words by chance and received a grant from the Arts Council. Yes, this was the eighties and proof as such. The actual ‘chance’ bit came while Bobby Drury was living in my caravan next to my studio and the previous evening a frying pan had crashed through a window accompanied by banshee screams from his girl friend demanding an orgasm. Tracy was a tough local cookie and took no hostages. Soon after, with glass shards still falling and tinkling musically onto the slate patio, my studio door groaned open and I was abruptly raped by the blunt-end. The lady of misrule gasps, “That’s the way to do it”.

The next day I coined the idea of a film, based on Stravinsky’s Petrushka and the three puppets imbued with half-life by a Trickster – where ‘no’ means a new caravan window and pan and brush, attraction, jealousy, hate and an audience warning about what’s going on behind your back. Petrushka, melancholic, a mythical outcast, headpiece filled with straw is both victim and perpetrator, messed up by post modern sexuality, blunt-ends needing satisfaction, and a flying, frying pan empty of sausages. A lycra-clad, homoerotic Bobby holds my strings on a North Stack Wall ‘big number’ as a venue. A ten-minute rock ballet was born! It felt like a real joke, dressing up some top climbers of the day, conjured from life’s rich tapestry. I pondered what I had done after I accepted the offer from the Arts Council. I could have picked a ‘safer’, more convenient route for all this theatrical prancing, but The Clown gave it a gnarly edge, an unwanted erection, some psychological trauma, an orgasm and a passage through snappy, surreal space on fingertips. Punch says, “Oh yes I will, it’s a winner”. Eh?

How poignant and enlightening to witness facsimiles of the human race that torture, hurt and abuse, but without the pain and suffering…where death can be imagined as a timeless tragedy.

Some friends of Romani origin had come back to their house in Bangor from the pub and found a stranger, curled up asleep on the sofa in front of the fire. Like the visiting images sliding in through an un-locked door, cheeky, he just walked right in. Being a race confronted by intolerance and hate, they know the worth of a fellow traveller obviously in need, and indeed this stranger made their tinker eyes sparkle with generations of hospitality and goodwill. An unlocked door is the way it is and in a peddler’s domain, way back to the ancient nomads of Asia, is worthy of man and good crack to boot and the show goes on. Thomas had somehow arrived from Sweden, picked a good door, knowing only a little English, without passport or documentation but became good friends with the scrap dealers and stayed in the house for several months. He had been a cameraman for a Swedish television company, and to me it was obvious, Thomas was to be the cameraman.

Martin Crook, well tuned to an outrageous joke and the secrets of the wall, was obviously contender to play Petrouchka the clown wearing a jester’s motley and sugarloaf hat, made by the Mother of his lover. Sawdust-headed and love-torn, he is wary that he is perhaps the subject of some cruel joke that he unknowingly created by wishing to be endowed with human feelings and emotions. And what of Freda Lowe, and how could the clown not fall in love with her?

As the late Harold Drasdo stated, “What is a nice girl like Freda doing in JR’s book?…” 

Wearing a tutu, that’s what, Harold. Can’t do it at home, durrr.
“Wearing a tutu, well that’s my job”, said Chris Dale indignantly, the cross-dressing outdoor guide from the lakes!
“It’s cool Chris, I will paint you up proper in textured acrylic, as a grinning Blackamoor, and make sure the costume is made from soft, fluffy fabric, that your glammed-up persona, Crystal will adore, and so will the ballerina”.

At 6ft 6in he was the man-moor-woman, gender confusing star of slate climbing, and the climber of the last unclimbed summit in the UK. Crystal or Chris, sadly neither any more the bouncing characters of glam-rock.

Paul Trower, signed up as ‘safety’ man, no stranger to glam and cool fibres or to expedition hardship and exhaustion. Instead of avalanche, loose rock and bad weather, were the cast of a freak show, logistics of emptying bin bags of sawdust onto a falling clown, a Swede terrified of heights and wearing espadrilles, men in lycra who really should be sectioned, a nice lady, and no idea of how to drop Martin onto me without killing either of us. He found it hilarious!

Clinging to one of Britain’s hardest routes at the time was a feat of total piss-taking and nonsense! ‘I chose to arse’ is not a book I wrote however, and the film did not get BMC approval for how to climb at North Stack. The film was shown once only, at the Mountain Film Festival in Llanberis. And for Shiva’s sake, the 16mm spool and the one vhs copy have been lost in the annals of time and 80’s lunacy. I only have the photos to prove the film actually happened - to prove that the characters lived and laughed and loved. As with old copies of ‘…and one for the crow’ it will turn up one day covered with a dusty patina from underneath a bed, were only the silly trinkets and broken things find solace…

It really does beg the question, ‘Who really is holding the ropes’?

 The insidious sounds of a tuba echo behind the flake, mocking. An image of horsemen riding by moves across the rock, horribly disfigured and deformed by the contours of the rock’s features. A clown appears and disappears, his painted face miming the words –

Real, unreal, safe, unsafe

John Redhead

St Laurent de Cerdans-September 2016

Images-John Redhead Collection 

Friday 7 July 2017

Where have all the Birds gone?

There is no doubt that some people will grin in anticipation of what this article might contain but, unfortunately, what follows is about the feathered, and not the more desirable, variety of bird. Even if the title has misled you to read this far, please carry on as the problems of bird conservation are of importance to every climber who uses sea-cliffs, regardless of the degree of his ornithological interest. Due to the recent huge losses in bird population from oil pollution and other causes, the Nature Conservancy are most concerned that those birds which do return to nest on the sea-cliffs are disturbed as little as possible, by climbers or anyone else. The problem has been outlined in a recent report, produced by the Nature Conservancy in Bangor, dealing mainly with the Anglesey cliffs, which are of high ornithological interest.

At a recent meeting between the Conservancy and the B.M.C. to discuss this report and its implications, it was agreed to publicise the relevant facts as widely as possible, to obtain the cooperation of climbers. In actual fact, the species of birds of importance nest in only a few specific parts of the Holyhead cliffs, mainly in the South Stack area. The main colonies of Auks nest on the two huge buttresses which project from Red Wall; in other words the two buttresses which define the Left-hand Red Wall zawn. Other smaller colonies nest on the prominent horizontal ledges in Mousetrap zawn, between Green Slab and the lighthouse steps. Thus the approaches to the Left-hand Red Wall routes and Mousetrap pass very near to the main colonies and Green Slab, Primevil, Primate and the Mousetrap zawn girdle actually go through the smaller colonies.

The nesting season lasts from the end of February to the end of July and, during this period, the areas mentioned above ought to be avoided as much as possible. None of the routes affected are in fact very popular, with the exception of Mousetrap, and so no great hardship would be felt by climbers voluntarily co-operating in this matter. Mousetrap can still be approached without disturbing any birds by either the low-tide approach from the lighthouse steps or by routing the abseil approach directly into the north side of the zawn instead of on to the top of the buttress. There is no real problem with Red Wall proper, Castell Helen or Yellow Wall. On Gogarth, there are no concentrated colonies of birds, but the broken areas above all the routes often hold nests of Cormorants, Puffin burrows and the nests of other rarer species.

In the case of these less critical areas it is obviously of importance to be careful only when in the near vicinity of isolated birds, particularly when scrambling up the upper parts of the cliff. The majority of climbers will be rather uncertain exactly when and where they constitute a serious disturbance to the more susceptible species. This being so I will try to provide a few notes for guidance, which I hope will be both helpful and interesting. Space does not allow a full description of each species, but any good reference book on birds will give clear illustrations of those concerned. Gulls: There are three species present on the Holyhead cliffs—Herring (or Common), Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed gulls. Of these the first is very numerous and of the others there are perhaps 10/20 pairs each. All are capable of looking after themselves, being so bold as to physically attack climbers—but any actual in-jury to a person is rare and almost certainly due to a miscalculation on the part of the bird.

However, the presence of the gull does constitute a real threat to the more timid species, which may leave eggs and young unattended when disturbed and at the mercy of these vicious predators. Great Black-backed gulls have been known to 'take' adult puffins. Cormorants: This group comprises of only two species, the Cormorant itself and its small cousin, the Shag. They are far less numerous than the gull, there being perhaps 20 pairs of each spread over the cliffs. They are basically coastal birds, spending a large proportion of their time sea diving for fish. During the critical stages of incubation they display great tenacity, remaining on the nest whilst climbers bridge round them. The smell, hissing and snake-like contortions of these birds are a discouragement to the most ardent climber.

They require large recesses or ledges for their bulky nests and consequently they often occupy sites that are useful as belay ledges. Some conflict is inevitable here, but it is not the immediate concern of the conservationists. However, due care should be taken when in the vicinity of nests. Auks: So far as the Holyhead cliffs are concerned this family of three birds, the Puffin, Razorbill and Guillemot, are the main problem. The Razorbill and Guillemot resemble a small version of the penguin, whilst the Puffin is smaller still with a highly coloured bill. Auks are oceanic birds which return to the coasts in February to establish colonies and leave in July when the young are fully fledged. They are placid birds with a shy disposition and are thus very susceptible to human interference.

Climbers may in themselves present only a marginal threat to breeding success, but when there is any oil or chemical pollution in the sea these birds die in their thousands. From a conservationist point of view it is essential to have several large colonies in each area to offset these catastrophes and speed recovery. The South Stack cliffs, as described above, are such an area and are second in importance only to the colonies on the Lleyn peninsula. Another factor is the slow breeding rate of Auks. They lay only one egg each year and do not lay another if the first is destroyed or deserted. Apart from the three species described above there are several other types of bird which nest on the Anglesey cliffs in much smaller numbers.

These include the Oyster-catcher, Fulmar, Raven, Kestrel and Rock Dove. Although it is unlikely that any of these birds would nest in an area of climbing activity, care should be taken if any of these birds or their nests are approached. The rock gymnast may either regard the birds as an interesting contribution to the unique atmosphere of sea-cliff climbs, or merely as a bloody nuisance. Whatever our view in these matters, we will recognise that when the interests of man and animal conflict, the animal invariably comes off worst. In conclusion, I would like to emphasise that it is in the interest of every climber using sea-cliffs to take every reasonable precaution to avoid the harassment of birds at all times, and particularly in the breeding season in the areas described.

So far, the problem has only arisen on Anglesey because of the intense climbing activity there over the past few years. Full co-operation from climbers using these cliffs will create a deal of goodwill with the conservationists and will prevent the necessity of more drastic measures being taken. The Nature Conservancy are to carry out population surveys over the next two years, to determine more exactly the effect of rock climbing on the status of each species. Exemplary conduct on our part should ensure that their conclusions will not lead them to press for permanent restrictions on Anglesey or on any other sea-cliffs. 

Les Holiwell:First published in Rocksport-April/May 1970


The Climbers excerpt- featuring Les and Laurie Holliwell